Because we are made for eternal life, we are made for an act that gathers up all the powers and capacities of our being and offers them simultaneously and forever to God. — Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island
By Anne Windholz
At the age of 20 I had definite ideas about vocation. I was enrolled at Benedictine College in Kansas, where I was double-majoring in piano and English. Certain that I wanted to be a writer, I nonetheless dreaded a life without music. I was also five years into a head-over-heels love affair with God and feeling a mighty attraction to the Benedictine life. Music seemed part of that call, but ultimately I decided to finish my English degree back home in Colorado. My piano professor assured me that I would regret it the rest of my life. (I haven’t.) My English professor tried to keep me from transferring. Swayed by neither (because saving money for grad school necessitated going home), I went back west. Life took turns that led away from the monastery. I buried myself in words.
After earning my PhD, I taught college English in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The same year that I was awarded tenure, I surrendered it to follow my spouse to his own college job in South Dakota. It was a hard choice and a hard time. The winter of 1996 was brutal. People stranded on South Dakota highways froze to death. Disheartened, scared, and professionally defunct, I sat at home surrounded by boxes of useless research, too many books, and two busy toddlers (soon joined by a baby brother). From outside my personal blizzard, a friend (a Lutheran friend) suggested, “Why don’t you go to seminary?”
Was that even possible for a Catholic woman? My vocation to Christian discipleship had never really burned out, just kept shining with a low glow. Now the flame began to flicker and swell, even as I was offered a tenure-track job where my spouse worked (every academic couple’s fantasy). It distracted me while I taught Romanticism, the Victorians, children’s literature, and advanced composition. I wondered about it while helping found a social justice group at the college, serving as a eucharistic minister at the local Catholic hospital, and attending retreats.
So when my spouse got his dream chance to teach at a research university near Chicago, I took the leap. I would, and did, go to seminary. I supported my years of study by returning to the piano bench, working as an accompanist for the Diocese of Rockford and gaining substantial liturgy experience. After graduating with an M.Div. from Catholic Theological Union, I served 18 months as a hospice chaplain before beginning a CPE residency. I subsequently landed a fulltime staff position at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, IL, and was at last board-certified. The marathon complete, I was full of joy, overwhelmed that I had risked everything by giving up academia and found fulfilling service.
But the truly amazing revelation was that nothing from my former life – nothing – had been wasted. I used my writing and editorial experience to create bereavement materials during my residency and to edit a book of reflections for staff and volunteers at my new job. I inaugurated a department newsletter. My teaching skills were at the service of our CPE supervisors, students, and spiritual care volunteers. I enjoyed making music in our hospital chapel, accompanying masses, memorial services, CPE student graduations, and seasonal liturgies.
Most of all, I did what we all do as chaplains: listen to stories. Fiction had been my specialty as a literary scholar. It had never occurred to me, when I contemplated leaving academia, that I would still be listening to, learning from, and sharing stories in chaplaincy. Real life stories. Tragedies and comedies; tales ethical and whimsical, inspiring and heartbreaking. But there it was – a multicultural, interfaith, diverse mix of human stories worthy of a Norton anthology. The most important part of my job had not changed at all! It was still all story!
Along the way, however, a wise mentor pointed out to me that I must not merely listen to the stories. Chaplaincy isn’t fiction analysis or literary criticism. Chaplaincy demands that I – that we – also love the storytellers. The sick, the dying, the grieving and the hopeful. Agape! When I could at last receive and understand that priceless wisdom, all the puzzle pieces of my journey fit. Our wondrous God, like a shrewd and careful craftsman, does not let anything go to waste in pursuit of love. Not in this world. And not in our diverse, many-hued hearts.
We chaplains bring to our vocation a wide diversity of prior experience. Some of us are young people on fire with the desire to serve as chaplains right out of school. Others of us – many others – are older, pursuing a second or even third career. We bring along the know-how of business executives, department managers, teachers, MBAs, musicians, school administrators, marketing gurus, and auto dealers. Each of us can discover how unique skills and talents from these prior lives enrich our spiritual care.
Which has ever been the disciple’s story. After all, Christ called fishermen, tax collectors, tent makers, centurions, physicians, and prisoners. And though those men and women might have been asked to bring but one pair of sandals and a staff for their journey, their voluntary poverty nonetheless had plenty of room for their varied expertise. As Merton reminds us, “all our powers and capacities” are gifts. Gifts meant for God, they also come from God. And having received, we give them back as chaplains. As lovers of stories, healing, and hope. As lovers of the One who knows what we need even before we ask, wherever our ministry may lead. The One who keeps the flame of love glowing so that even in the cold and the dark, we may be a light to others.
Anne Windholz, BCC, is a spiritual direction intern in west suburban Chicago. Her book, The Understory: Poems and Prayers, is available from Amazon.